Saturday, June 23, 2007

Shame on you, Dear Abby

I'll cop to reading Dear Abby, despite the often off-the-mark advice she doles out. But today's column went beyond off-the-mark and into just-plain-dangerous-and-wrong territory.

Here's the letter in question: "I'm an attractive, single, successful, 27-year-old woman who has struggled with anorexia ever since I was 12. I have learned to live with it and feel no need to advertise it to the world. However, I find that many strangers, including a large number of people I associate with at work, feel a compulsion to comment on my weight (105 pounds and 5 foot 9), the size of the clothes I wear, or what I eat. It's as uncomfortable a subject for me as I imagine it is for people who are overweight, and I have no 'pat' answer for them." --Annoyed at 105

Here's Abby's response:
Dear Annoyed: Clearly, your weight issues are more obvious to those around you than you chose to believe. However, you are under no obligation to answer these intrusive questions if it makes you uncomfortable. When confronted, reply, "That's a very personal question (or subject) and I'd prefer not to discuss it." Then change the subject.


Argh! Please write to her and set her straight about anorexia: It's not a "lifestyle choice" but a lethal mental illness. Ask her why she would sanction this writer's settling for a life distorted by anorexia. Invite her to list resources that might be helpful to "Annoyed" and her family, including maudsleyparents.org, NEDA, eatingwithyouranorexic.com, and others.

This is a teachable moment on a national scale. Go for it!

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I understand your concern, but I'm wondering if Abby's mission here was to help the woman maintain her privacy in a public setting. Nobody should be pinned against the wall and forced to answer questions about their weight when they're on the job or on the street.

Abby should have concluded the letter with urging the writer to get help,that's true. But I sense she wanted to help the woman to protect her privacy from nosy people who may not care about her, but are just looking for gossip or cheap Schadenfreude.

Anonymous said...

Right, and obesity is an epidemic and a national health issue. Leave the poor girl alone about her body. She knows she's anorexic and has been for many years. She's not dead so clearly she's working on it. Let her decline to discuss either her mental health or her size with anyone who asks. It's the other side of the same coin.

Harriet Brown said...

anonymous #1:
I respect your sensitivity to this young woman's need for privacy. Really I do. But what I know about anorexia is that someone who has struggled with it for 15 years is not likely to be able to get help for herself. By her own description of herself--attractive, successful--she doesn't feel she needs help. That's classic anorexic thinking, and while it's not something to blame her for, it does mean that she needs others to help her. The best thing that could happen to her is if her friends and co-workers and family could find a way to get together and get her into treatment. Of course she finds the notion intrusive while she's under the influence of anorexia. But sometimes the end really does justify the means. I would like her to have a full and happy life.

To anonymous #2:
Sorry, I don't buy that obesity-as-national-health-issue crap. I won't bother to reprise the science here, but read up on my earlier blog comments, on junkfoodscience.com, and on a host of other intelligent blogs and you will discover that the story is way more complicated than you represent it. Someone who's been anorexic for 15 years is clearly not able to "work on it." She needs help. And those who love and care about her have every right to see that she gets it--not in a blaming or shame-inducing way. In a supportive, loving way.

And no, anorexia is not the "other side" of the same coin, by which I assume you refer to issues around obesity.

Anonymous said...

As someone who has struggled for five years with an eating disorder, I certainly agree that encouraging sufferers to seek help is a brilliant idea. However, although I agree that Abby could have suggested that this woman needs to learn to live WITHOUT it, I see nothing in her answer that encourages anorexia as a "lifestyle choice." Rather, I see her trying to educate the public about another important matter: the "intrusive" nature of comments about weight. Anyone who has dealt with an ED can tell you that comments about weight from strangers or acquaintances are NEVER helpful, nor do they encourage the sufferer to seek help or discourage excess weight loss. They do, however, put even more focus on the individual's weight, re-emphasize that the ED is, indeed, their identity, and serve to completely disprove people's assurances that "you are more than your body."

I applaud your desire to recognize these deadly illnesses for what they are and to stop accepting and encouraging dangerous thinness as a lifestyle. But give Abby a break...I also applaud her for informing the public that these comments are rude and not helpful.

Harriet Brown said...

Point taken on comments about weight. You're right--they're never helpful. I didn't mean to imply that I feel it's OK for people to go around commenting on other people's weight.

But I do think that sometimes we don't offer help because we're afraid of being intrusive, and I wish this young woman and others could get help and not just be left to suffer for so many years.

Meowser said...

"Obesity" is not the opposite of "anorexia nervosa." "Obesity" is the opposite of "emaciation."

"Anorexia nervosa" is not the opposite of "obesity." "Binge eating disorder" is the opposite of "anorexia nervosa."

Do you see the difference, anonymous? One refers to a body type that might result from an eating disorder but more often than not is multifactorial in origin. The other refers to an actual eating disorder.

IOW, most fat people are not binge eaters. Most skinny people are not suffering from anorexia nervosa. Unless you see direct physical evidence on a regular basis of how someone eats or doesn't eat -- or they tell you directly -- you don't know. You just don't. For all you know, that fat lady in front of you might make herself throw up several times a day and it's only taken her down from 400 pounds to 300.

So the number of anorexics pales compared to the number of fat people. But anorexia nervosa poses FAR more of an imminent danger to someone's life than being fat does. We're pointing out the guy sitting in his car playing Russian roulette, and you're saying, "Yeah, but what about all the people who don't have any guns to protect them?"

And regarding Dear Abby's response, yes, it might seem a little like she's letting this woman off the hook for starving herself, at first glance. But remember, anorexics often dig in their heels extra hard when someone reminds them of their illness. If you've ever read the Carpenters' authorized biography, you know that people practically begged Karen on their hands and knees to eat, over and over again, and the more they did so, the sicker she got. Even her expensive therapist who she saw five times a week didn't have much luck with her, and he tried everything.

Abby might have been thinking, "This woman knows she's sick, she doesn't need me to tell her." I doubt she thinks anorexia is "nothing." But I do expect her to get bunches of letters about it regardless.

Harriet Brown said...

Maybe so, Meowser. But I HATE this friggin' disease. And I hate the fact that no one could find a way to help Karen Carpenter and all the other people with anorexia. I HATE the fact that they suffer that we can't help them. I've watched the agony of anorexia close up and it's appalling, abominable, unacceptable.

So I guess if that makes me intrusive, I'll live with that. I can't live with being complicit in someone's self-destruction. Especially when I know that it's not really them "choosing" it.

Anonymous said...

(This is Anonymous #1; I've got to think of some clever name.)

You're right about the strength of denial, Harriet. I wonder now, if this woman has been dealing with anorexia since she was 12, if there are any people left in her life who could help her or if she's turned the sad corner that Karen Carpenter did and wouldn't even listen if someone tried. And that is tragic.